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OM in the News: America’s Electronics Trash–and Mexico

November 28, 2016
Life and business revolve around electronic waste in this Mexico City neighborhood, much of it from the U.S.

Life and business revolve around E-waste in this Mexico City neighborhood, much of it from the U.S.

On the street here, in Renovación, a neighborhood in Mexico City, Jesus Gómez watches as 8 men and a woman sit in a circle under an intense sun, breaking two huge sacks of spent Motorola cable-TV boxes apart with hammers and chisels. They wrench out bits of copper, metal, and circuitry, with shards of metal and plastic flying everywhere. Gómez will find buyers for all of it.

Outside the workshop are more piles, and there are yet more in the street; the junk seems to pour in constantly, some of it from around Mexico City and a lot from much farther. Heaps are from Texas. “The gringos throw it out,” says Gomez’ partner. “We do the dirty work of breaking it apart.”

That’s the essence of Renovación. At one unlicensed workshop after another, adults and teenagers disassemble printers, monitors, and PCs. It’s hazardous work: Smash an old TV, and you risk spewing lead into the air. Crack open an LCD flatscreen, and you can release mercury vapor. Mobile phones and computers can contain dangerous heavy metals such as cadmium and toxic flame retardants. Mexican workplace regulations, like those in the U.S., require e-waste shops to provide such safety equipment as goggles, hard hats, and masks. There’s little of that in Renovación.

In much of the world, Renovacion couldn’t exist, writes Businessweek (Nov. 14-20, 2016). Business owners wouldn’t be allowed to employ people in those conditions. Twenty-five U.S. states have laws establishing what’s known as extended producer responsibility, or EPR. That means electronics makers must collect, recycle, and dispose of discarded equipment rather than allow it to enter the waste stream. But the lack of a formal, regulated recycling industry is one of many reasons Mexico has become a magnet for spent electronics. E-waste is a poorly tracked trade, but Mexico is the No. 1 importer of used and junked electronics from the U.S., taking in almost 129,000 tons a year.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. After reading the linked article, what has Dell done for EPR?
  2. What are the ethical issues that arise in this situation?
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